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Q&A: How Rep. Jesse Johnson plans to lead as a legislator

Rep. Jesse Johnson was appointed to the 30th Legislative District seat left open by the resignation of Kristine Reeves in January. Of the bills Johnson wrote during his first session, four passed into law that address youth, educational outcomes, and families.

As session was coming to a close, COVID-19 presented a fusillade of new issues to address. Since the crisis began, Johnson told me he has been focused on making sure stakeholders across his community have had his ear.

I called Johnson earlier today to ask about his takeaways from his first session. In a conversation that has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity, we also discussed the way socioeconomic relief strategies can be targeted to those most in need, what his constituents have been telling him recently, and his view of how a legislator should lead on policy.

Michael Goldberg: This past session was your first in the Legislature. As your first session was winding down, a global pandemic was ramping up. Can you put into words the journey you’ve been on from a policy standpoint since January? 

Rep. Jesse Johnson: Since the outbreak started, I have made an effort to highlight public health safety and how much our economy has been impacted. Safety is the number one priority, but I’m really focussed on how we can reopen our economy without compromising that. I’m listening to small businesses in my own community that are impacted, nonprofit organizations, etc. Again, finding that balance between reopening and public safety is the focus.

MG: You serve on the Housing, Community Development & Veterans Committee. We know from King County data that people who live in multi-generational households – where social distancing can be a challenge – have experienced higher rates of infection. This is also true for many essential workers who are forced to contend with workplace conditions that are not conducive to social distancing. All in all, these groups might walk away from the pandemic in an even more vulnerable position than before. From a socioeconomic standpoint, do you think policies aimed at these groups should center around improving their material conditions where they stand today, or should they be designed to lay the groundwork for upward mobility?

RJJ: It’s definitely both. Priority number one right now is making sure people can survive. This involves ensuring all rental assistance funding is distributed to sources that directly impact and support marginalized communities – people of color, immigrants, low income working families. I think we need to have an equitable model that ensures that both families and small businesses are targeted first.  

On upward mobility, I definitely think there’s an opportunity for that in the recovery phase. But my priority is making sure people can put food on the table, making sure they can survive. I’m thinking short term as far as the special session but more long term in the next general session.”

MG: Would you mind sharing what your constituents have told you about how they feel right now? Specifically, do you hear more about people’s desire to stay the course from a public health perspective to do everything possible to fight COVID, or are you hearing more about people’s economic concerns and the desire to reopen?

RJJ: It’s interesting because I feel like the constituents who have reached out to me have talked more about reopening. However, I think that members of the community that are underserved and don’t have a voice in government are the ones I have to go out and seek. When I talk to them, a lot of them are worried about safety. Even though they’re struggling and they’re trying to get by on unemployment, they’re worried about being forced to go back to work in an unsafe environment. They ask me questions around strategy guidelines and what to do if your employer says that you need to go back to work. But most of the people who reach out to me directly are generally those who want to reopen.” 

MG: As a new member of the Legislature, I want to get your perspective on leadership. As a legislator, do you think it is more your responsibility to ascertain what the consensus opinion is among your constituents and represent that consensus opinion through your votes and policies, or do you view the role of the legislator as one in which you can change minds based on the policies you support and the way those policies impact people?

RJJ: I would say the latter. Part of the work of getting elected is consensus building, but I also think about trying to make policies that are new and innovative. With every policy, there’s going to be a group that likes it and a group that doesn’t like it, so you have to be able to try out different policies that are innovative and have the capacity to change lives. As an elected official, I think you can do that while supporting policies that benefit the majority of the community.” 

MG: Thinking ahead to the special session, are there any particular issues that you are most adamant about giving voice to? 

RJJ: To use an analogy: there are some people in our community who need a lifeboat; those are the people I’m thinking about first. These are people who are barely hanging on will be delighted just to survive this. Other people might just need a life vest; a little bit of assistance to get through this. 

So, the people who need that lifeboat are first on my mind: marginalized communities, seniors on a fixed income, low income families, immigrants and undocumented folks, small businesses that are not getting access to grants (especially women and minority owned businesses). After that, I’m thinking about the people who need the life vest. These are the people that are doing okay but might need rental assistance, a little bit of grant money to help their businesses along, or delayed or deferred taxes until 2021 to ensure all their revenue earnings can go toward vital needs.” 

MG: One of your colleagues said recently that housing has been the most ideologically charged issue in the Legislature over the past few years. Even though you’ve only been in the Legislature for one session, what is your hypothesis for why that’s been the case?

RJJ: I think it revolves around the idea of whether housing is a human right. I hope a majority of us can say heath care is a basic human right. We might not be at that point with housing. 

With some housing debates, I’m kind of in the middle. I think you should have a plan for yourself or your family to be able to get housing. If you can’t get housing because you don’t have a job or you were recently incarcerated, we should at least find pathways for you to obtain housing. The same should be true if you’re homeless or have some issues with behavioral health or addiction. Housing is one of the issues where people don’t necessarily think it’s a human right and a lot of people go unsheltered because of that. I definitely think we should make stability priority number one to ensure people stay housed. When it comes to affordability, I think we need to have a balanced approach of creating permanent supportive housing and making sure our economy is doing well enough to provide enough paths to home ownership.”


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